Alistair Burt is a former Foreign Office Minister and MP for North East Bedfordshire.
In these interesting times, as I rattle towards Clacton and Rochester on the train, I am being frequently asked by Con Homers: ‘Alistair, tell us about some of the shock football moves – the transfers of favourite sons, or the walking-out by players to rival clubs?’
What may have sparked such interest in this dark art will be obvious. But I have little doubt which excites greater interest amongst the real general public, so here are a handful of football’s most notorious ‘I just don’t believe it’ moments.
Even those of us not from North London can understand how the choice of Sol Campbell to move from Tottenham to Arsenal provoked a bitter reaction from White Hart Lane fans every time they had the chance to meet up with him again. But whilst that was big news in English club football it paled into insignificance compared with two other international club stories. When Luis Figo left Barcelona for Real Madrid in 2000 – and you need Spanish Civil War history understanding to begin to understand the full flavour of this one – the expressions of fury included banners saying ‘Rraitor, Judas and Scum’ and the notorious throwing of a pigs head onto a pitch when he appeared again.
A prolific goal scorer home and abroad would be a fine addition to any team. This element of the brief was well satisfied in Mo Johnston’s case when he signed for Glasgow Rangers in 1989. However, his CV also included a long stint as a hero for Glasgow Celtic – he was in fact the first high profile Catholic to play for Rangers, a brave and ground breaking move from an extraordinary taboo. This was big news home and abroad – and millions had a view on it. The Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland were asked for official reactions, and it was thought perhaps 20,000 fans might leave the club, though they did not.
Some transfers provoke pity and sadness. When Tommy Docherty let Denis Law go from United to Manchester City, the first that the King of Old Trafford knew about it was when he read it in the Manchester Evening News: changed days indeed. That the great man’s heart was torn by being discarded became famously clear in the last game of the following season, when his instinctive back- heeled goal seemingly condemned United to relegation in 1974. There was no celebration from the player, whose distress was such that he was immediately substituted.
And that’s the point. Family matters. Those of us brought up in the Conservative Party, who have served it one way or another as street activists, leaflet stuffers, canvassers, councillors, mutual aiders hardly counting the miles – and the costs – over decades, feel we are in a family.
Just look at how this week’s Party Conference comes together. We disagree from time to time, we can be cross with colleagues, we seek to persuade friends of our point of view, but we stick together for a greater cause – the sort outlined by our leaders, our Prime Ministers, where we put something above ourselves.
And indeed there are ways of leaving, of severing that connection sadly if the time comes, which honours those who have been comrades along the way, with mutual respect. But calculated damage to our family, actions designed deliberately to prevent that cause from delivering for our country rightly provoke fury and intense upset, as the hard work of thousands on our behalf appears discarded for a photo opportunity and the smirk of betrayal.
The football illustrations above are of men and moments of true significance, which shook foundations and made headlines that are remembered decades later in the world of real people and their lives. There are other defections which have simply blown away with time, and turned out to be as inconsequential as an empty plastic bag drifting down a windy street at the seaside.
Time will tell.